CHAMPAIGN, ILL. (AP) - Illinois’ 17-14 win over Arizona State was flawed by just about any measure.
Three turnovers. A mediocre 240 yards of offense, more than 100 less than the Sun Devils. And a chasm of 38 minutes between a first-quarter field goal and the late touchdown that won finally won it.
Just don’t bother trying to explain all that to Nathan Scheelhaase. Or the voters in the AP Top 25, who rewarded the Illini (3-0) on Sunday with the No. 24 spot, Illinois’ first appearance in the poll since September 2008.
“It feels great,” said Scheelhaase, who finished with 135 yards passing and 67 on the ground. “(Offensive coordinator Paul) Petrino was telling us all week that it was going to be a 15-round slugfest and we just kept swinging. Sometimes we were missing and sometimes we were connecting, but we found a way to land the last punch and win the fight.”
Arizona State (2-1), whose stay in the Top 25 ended at one week, landed its own blows, just not enough to counteract their three turnovers and six sacks on quarterback Brock Osweiler _ two of them blind-side hammer shots in the center of his back that led to an interception and a fumble.
As high as the Sun Devils were after the overtime win over Missouri that propelled them into the rankings, the trip to Champaign left them frustrated and low.
“It’s very disappointing. It’s two steps forward and then one step back,” coach Dennis Erickson said. “We’re a good football team, we just need to learn from this.”
They’ll have to learn while getting ready for their first Pac 12 test, at home Saturday against newly ranked and No. 23 USC.
On a night when 60 or 70 combined points wouldn’t have been a surprise, the Sun Devils controlled the defensive line of scrimmage on defense. Illinois averaged 259 yards rushing its first two games but was held to 153 by Arizona State, and just 105 through three quarters.
But those 48 yards in the fourth quarter were big, and most of them came from tailback Jason Ford.
The senior finished with 58 yards on 21 carries. While that may not look impressive, five of those carries and 18 of those yards came after Illinois moved into the lead late and chewed up late minutes. Ford’s carries were one after another and straight into a stacked Arizona State defense anticipating the run.
When they need a stop most, the Sun Devils struggled to get one.
Illinois’ defense was dominant in a different way. They surrendered some yards _ 362 _ and 21 first downs, but the pass rush was more than Osweiler and the line in front of him were ready for.
Linebacker Jonathan Brown, who had an interception and 1 1/2 sacks, said the defense fed off the crowd and the way it shut down the Sun Devils on the game’s opening possession, a three-and-out stand that only hinted at what was to come.
“We had a lot of emotion starting off, and it helped us in setting the tone for the game,” Brown said.
The sophomore, who took over a starting spot this season, is quickly becoming a key piece of the linebacker corps. The group lost its centerpiece, Martez Wilson, to the NFL draft in the spring, and was a big question mark coming into this season.
Brown believes he and fellow linebackers Trulon Henry and Ian Thomas have something to prove.
“I think we showed people what we have been thinking all summer,” Brown said. “We showed people we can play with anybody in the country.”
Like Arizona State after its win over Missouri, Illinois will have to play after a big emotional high. And the Illini will have to do it against Western Michigan, a team that they came out flat against in their last meeting three years ago. Illinois lost and went them into a tailspin that left it 5-7 in a year they expected to finish with a bowl.
At 3-0 for the first time since 2001, the Illini may have reason to celebrate, but they say their focus will quickly turn to Western Michigan.
“Right now, we are going to just live in the moment,” said receiver A.J. Jenkins, who caught the game-winning touchdown. “And then on Monday we have to get our focus back on next week’s game.
David Mercer can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/DavidMercerAP
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